Thaler’s Right: Data Ownership – by “Max C.”

This week’s iPhone controversy is a big deal, but it also could be a win for consumers. Normally, to find out the information about you that your carrier has already taken and is now selling to law enforcement agencies, you have to sue them in court— but with the iPhone, at least, you yourself also own a copy!

Was the iPhone location tracking file an egregious error, especially since they didn’t notify users? Probably. Will it be patched, never to be seen again in the next version of iOS? Probably. But that’s a bummer for people that like owning their own data.

Writes Richard Thaler in today’s NY Times:

If a business collects data on consumers electronically, it should provide them with a version of that data that is easy to download and export to another Web site. Think of it this way: you have lent the company your data, and you’d like a copy for your own use.

That sounds a lot like what you iPhone location file is. One of the stink bombs thrown up over this iPhone debacle is, “this information isn’t behind a firewall.” True— which means that YOU own it, instead of your phone company. Besides, lots of private information up behind a firewall just creates another juicy target for a hacker (a la Epsilon’s data breach). Are we really getting to the point where we don’t want users owning their own data because they’re so incompetent they might get hacked? Even Thaler’s semi-paternalistic book Nudge doesn’t go that far! Besides, as David Pogue points out,

The one legitimate concern, therefore, is that someone else with access to your computer could retrieve the information about your travels and see where you’ve been. Your spouse, for example. The researchers also mention “a private investigator,” but that’s a little silly. A PI is going to break into your house to inspect your iTunes backup? If your computer is that accessible, you’ve got much bigger problems.

Most likely, the only person that is really that fascinated about you is… well, you. Pogue again:

Meanwhile, accept it: Yes, Big Brother is watching you. But he’s been watching you for years, well before the iPhone log came to light, and in many more ways than you suspect.

And you know what? I’ll bet he’s bored to tears.

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